Photo by Danny Fulgencio.

Five-year-old Eli Patterson loves cowboys. But when he met Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, he was a little confused. Where were their horses? Where were their hats?

Eli has a getup that would put those pretenders to shame. When he’s wearing his faux leather chaps, popgun holster and gold sheriff’s badge, he struts. And that’s what he’ll do when he walks the runway April 26 as a featured model at the annual Children’s Cancer Fund Gala.

At the 31st iteration of the event, Aikman, Staubach and other celebrities will escort 26 pediatric cancer patients modeling fashions handpicked at Dillard’s. The gala is expected to raise more than $1 million for pediatric cancer research.

“I’m excited to be a model in the fashion show because I can dress up, usually as a cowboy,” Eli says. “I was in isolation for almost a year, so I’m excited to be around a lot of friends.”


Just two weeks shy of his third birthday, doctors diagnosed Eli with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. The news shattered his parents, Annie and Randall Patterson. 

It had taken the couple a year to get pregnant with Eli. About two months into her term, Annie hemorrhaged, and the pair thought they lost him then. A sonogram showed his heart was still beating, and Eli was born healthy after a full term. Three years later, the Pattersons were fighting for Eli’s life once again.

“It just completely devastated us because of all that we had been through just to get to this point,” Randall says. “The heartbreak we felt was one that I don’t know how to describe other than we’d never felt such pain in our lives.

“I remember feeling so hopeless. At that point, I understood how people could have a broken heart. I remember thinking the pain was so great and so hurtful, how could you recover from it?” 

Cancer was the last thing the Pattersons expected for Eli — their alpha male. He drank black coffee and woke up at 6 a.m. to go to construction sites with his dad, owner of Mockingbird Builders. His personality was the epitome of strength.

Chemotherapy helped Eli achieve remission, but he had to spend the first year of treatment in isolation at home and at Children’s Medical Center because of complications and infections. For the remainder of his treatment, which will continue until May 2020, Eli will receive chemo at the hospital once a month while taking chemo tablets and steroids at home.

Eli endures the chemo like the little man that he is. About halfway through his treatment, he asked nurses to stop using numbing cream when they access his port, a device placed under the skin in the chest to draw blood and give treatments. Every month he takes a big needle in the chest without any pain reliever. No one can deny Eli’s toughness, but cancer has, somewhat, tamed the alpha male, his mother says.

“To see him since he’s been diagnosed, there’s such compassion in his life,” Annie says. “When his brothers and sisters fall and get hurt, he’s the first one there asking, ‘How can I help?’ Cancer changes a person and a whole family.”

Although Eli had few opportunities to play with other kids, he found a second family in the Children’s staff. At the hospital, Eli gets to be the center of attention, and nurses will bring him toys that he doesn’t have to share with his three younger siblings. Sometimes when he’s bored, he’ll ask to go to the hospital. 

“In his mind, it’s where he goes to have a little vacation,” Annie says. “He’s a little bit disappointed when we tell him you don’t go to the hospital because you want to see your friends. He doesn’t realize it’s so different than other kids.”

The Pattersons’ new normal may consist of isolation, treatments and doctor visits, but as Eli progresses, Annie and Randall have allowed themselves to start dreaming of “someday.”

“Death is so close in some ways, and we’ve had to process living and losing a child,” Randall says. “All that changes you. He won’t remember this as he gets older. But it’s like a big storm has come into our life, and now it’s blowing out. We’re left to pick up the pieces. How do you rebuild?”

Eli has already felt well enough to attend a Disney on Ice performance and a RoughRiders game. And when he grows up, he’d like to be a builder like his dad, or a policeman, or a guitar player or a cowboy. He’s already walked down at least two of those career paths. Dressed in his cowboy suit, Eli strums his guitar and sings:

I should’ve learned to rope and ride

Wearin’ my six-shooter

Ridin’ my pony on a cattle drive

Stealing the young girls’ hearts

Singing those campfire songs

I should’ve been a cowboy

Eli takes credit for the song, but his dad corrects him. Toby Keith taught him that one.

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